Saturday, April 14, 2012

2012 Atlanta Film Festival review: THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

Okay, don't worry: there aren't going to be any spoilers here.  And if you know what I'm talking about, that also means I don't have to go into much plot detail regarding The Cabin in the Woods, the fantastically smart new horror comedy from director/co-writer Drew Goddard (who wrote Cloverfield) and producer/co-writer Joss Whedon. Given Whedon's involvement, I was hoping for a Buffy-like jaunt with brash dialogue and a genre-busting mission...and I got what I wanted.  Giddy while watching it unspool as the closing night offering for the 2012 Atlanta Film Festival (where I got to shake hands with its star, the extremely charming Kristen Connelly), I tried to remember midway through when I'd last had such a high time at a movie.   Actually, I couldn't come up with a competitive title...surely, I'd had fun at other blockbusters recently.  But, no, I can't really even think of one even now (many genre hits of the past decade have been rather dreary).  Meanwhile, The Cabin in the Woods is an insanely exciting, resoundingly new kinda hoot all the way through.

I had a friend recently say he hated the movie because it was too cliched.   Wondering what, exactly, this person was expecting, I quickly came to the film's defense:  "Don't you realize that the movie's ambition is to tear down the cliches while giving them a hilariously gigantic reason d'atre?"  The film isn't just about five kids who go off to party by the lake, and all the "horror" that premise entails.   It's a full-on spoof of movies, audience expectations, the video-game culture, the reality TV boom, and the labeling of personalities (some viewers might look towards the Scream series as a reference point, but this movie is much cleverer than Scream ever was).  Also, in the wry scenes that feature Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as smart-assed scientists (and I'm not giving anything away there, because they're the first characters we see in the film), Cabin freely mocks conspiracy theorists and big-picture seers while admitting that they might indeed be on to something.  With every turn of this outlandish riot of a plot--if you choose to read its deeper intentions--there is a new skewer or challenge directed at something occurring in the culture.  Or, if you're not into picking your movies apart, you can just sit back and be amazed at where this labyrinth takes you.

The cast is almost uniformly terrific, with Fran Kranz taking the lovability award here with his meek, scratchy-voiced, conspiracy-minded stoner.   I really loved a little throwaway moment with Kranz as he's sitting on a bed, anxiously reading a collection of Little Nemo comics and pleading with Nemo to wake up (I laughed hard at this, but almost no one else in the theater did, which shows I'm a real geek).   The resourceful Kristin Connelly makes a pretty nifty virgin girl (who's resolutely not a virgin), and Anna Hutchison gets some hot points for her smoldering dance moves and ability to tongue-kiss a wolf's head.  The other two guys, Chris Hemsworth and Jesse Williams, are ciphers as the jock and the brain, respectively, but that's okay because they do what's required of them: they make you sort of not care about how this story treats them.  And the presence of the wired. scuzzy Whitford and the dutiful Jenkins ups the film's acting gravitas quite a bit.   Any time Jenkins, in particular, shows up in a movie, you can feel that film getting better by the second.

The Cabin in the Woods isn't trying to be all that scary (though it has a few moments, particularly in its astounding final third, but it's unfailingly exciting throughout).  But, primarily, it IS funny--all the way from its shocking, improbably-placed red-lettered title card (its appearance made me laugh so hard, I had to endure a headache afterwards) to one particular blood-spattered special effects shot unlike any on-screen massacre I've ever witnessed (sure to be talked about as the film's WTF apex).  I could go on and on about the film's most hysterical moments, but you deserve to see them for yourselves.  So it's not a frightening horror film, but it is an important genre entry nonetheless--and that's a real rarity.  Most satisfyingly, The Cabin in the Woods is the sort of undemandingly intelligent, rollicking movie fun best experienced in the company of an unprepared audience. And it's not often I get to write THAT sentence.

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